We’ve all been there. You buy your first backpack and all of the gear you can think of, load it up and head out onto the trail. About ten minutes in you sit down for a break, wondering how on earth people do this on a regular basis. The problem? You’ve packed your backpack all wrong!
Buying a good quality backpack doesn’t mean you’re suddenly an expert, and there is a lot to be said for efficiently packing your belongings to maximize efficiency out on the trail, and keep you from suffering unnecessary aches and pains.
Obviously every backpacking trip is different and perhaps require different items, but there are a few golden rules you can apply every time which will make your life much, much easier.
How to distribute backpack weight in 5 steps:
Your overall aim is to keep the heavy items in the middle core of your backpack, close to your back and away from the top, bottom and outside of your pack. Placing light and squashy items at the bottom of your pack– such as a sleeping bag – will keep the heavier items in place whilst providing good lumbar support on your lower back.
Lastly, light and important items at the top of your back – such as a down jacket – will keep your essentials within reach without weighing you down. Here’s our step-by-step guide.
Step 1. Put sleeping gear in first at the bottom of your pack
Placing these lighter, more compressible items in first – you won’t need them until you set up camp and they act as good shock absorption for the rest of your pack weight as you hike. Many backpacks come with a dedicated compartment or entry zip for accessing these, but even if you don’t have a separate entry; these are the items you will need the least.
List of things to put at the bottom of your pack:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad (if you don’t have a super compressible one, attach it to the outside of your pack at the bottom).
- Nightwear/ extra layers for campsite
- Lightweight campsite shoes (crocs/flip flops etc.)
Step 2. Put heavier food and cooking items in next, in the middle of your backpack – closest to your back
This midsection is where you’ll want to store your heaviest items. Even though you may want to access your food and cooking equipment mid-trail, it is worth the extra few minutes spent re-packing your gear, to have your supplies distributed properly throughout your pack.
List of things to place in the middle of your backpack, close to your back:
- Food (meal items, not snacks you’ll want on-the-go)
- Cooking utensils
- Emergency rations
- Bear canister (if applicable)
- Water reservoir (unless you prefer to backpack with bottles)
- Tent poles (unless you prefer them on the outside of your pack)
- Tent stakes
This is also a good place to store your tent fabrics and any spare clothing. Wrap them around individual items as padding
If you have a larger pack (around 50 liters and above) then you can distribute your weight even more efficiently by lying it flat, with the outside of the pack facing upward. Arrange the heavier items closest to your back, then pad the outside of the pack with tent fabrics or spare clothes, thus keeping the heaviest bulk central to your body mass.
Step 3. Put outer layers and light supplies at the top of your pack
This last top layer is reserved for the lighter things you will need most frequent access to. Think carefully about things you may want to access regularly when on the trail; this will change depending on the type of backpacking trip you are doing.
Some items to keep for the top of your backpack:
- Insulated jacket
- Waterproof layers
- Toilet supplies (toilet paper, ziplock bag for used paper, trowel)
- First Aid kit
- Water purifiers
This last section is only really perfected on a hike-by-hike basis. You’ll find yourself adjusting, adding and removing with each trip you do, but this list is a good starting point.
Step 4. Accessorize your outer pockets, clips and loops
Arguably the most fun part of packing a backpack: finding a use for all of those extra pockets and pack loops. Depending on the brand, size and function of your pack; you’ll have an array of different pockets and loops in places like the hip belt, the sides, the top compartment and so on.
Again, this will be trip dependent and you’ll hone in on your perfect configuration the more you backpack – but think hard about the things you’ll want to access whilst walking that you don’t want to have to take your pack on and off for every time.
Here’s an idea of what to put in these pockets:
- GPS device
- Map and compass
- Bug spray
- Cash & Passport
- Water bottles (if not using a reservoir)
- Backpack rain cover
When you’re all packed up, you may still find that you have a few items to squeeze on or into your pack somewhere. This is where your lash-on points, tool loops and even compression straps come in handy.
Utilize these for:
- Trekking poles
- Tent poles
- Sleeping pad (if too big to compress into bottom section of pack)
- Camping chair
- Ice axe or climbing gear
Obviously, the more you lash on to the outside of your pack, the more off-balance you may become. Too much weight sitting away from your back can start to really weigh you down and cause you to tire out more easily. Use these loops and clips sparingly – no matter how “cool” you think it looks to be carabiner-ed up to the eyeballs!
Step 5. Do a trial run
Before you set out on your backpacking trip, try to do a trial run before you leave. Even if this is just half an hour around your neighborhood, you’ll be thankful that you did. If your pack is off-balance, feels like its pulling you backwards or some straps are starting to rub – then this will give you the opportunity to rethink and reconfigure before it is too late.
It is also worth packing, unpacking and repacking your backpack several times at home. With each iteration, you’ll be faster and more efficient and will be glad of this when you head out. Time is precious when out on the trail, and backpacking requires a good amount of self-discipline to be enjoyed fully.
What do I do if my backpack is too heavy?
This is a common complaint among backpackers – even those with experience. It can be very tempting to stash extra little luxuries into pockets, or bring more clothes “just in case”, or plan indulgent trail meals. These can add up very quickly and those add unwanted pounds to your backpack.
If you find your pack is too heavy, take everything out and start again. Look at all of your items from square one and determine where you can cut weight. If you’re backpacking as part of a group, get together and assess what everyone is bringing and what can be shared out. If going alone, take only essentials and deny yourself those luxuries.
Every backpacker is different, but almost all would agree that shedding pounds before the hit the trail is worth well more than those little extras!
Are ultralight backpacks worth it?
Ultralight backpacks are generally only used by very seasoned backpackers. They are designed with the lightest materials, and generally come “no bells and whistles” to shave off precious ounces. They are popular among long-distance thru-hikers completing trails like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail – situations where you’ll be walking for months on end and go many days between resupply points.
Due to their lightweight construction, they tend to be a little less durable than regular backpacks. They are generally considered unsuitable for terrains with dense forest or bush-whacking, as the fabrics are more prone to snag or rip. That being said, if you don’t mind fashioning a patch yourself on the trail, a couple of rips here and there may not stop you from going ultralight in these terrains.
These ultralight packs are often more expensive, so if you are new to backpacking then stick with your normal backpack for now. Once you have completed several thru-hikes, removed every unnecessary ounce you can think of and still want to go lighter: then consider investing in an ultralight backpack.
How do you train for a heavy backpack?
There is a common misconception that only the fittest hikers or serious gym-bunnies are capable of serious backpacking. This is not true! Backpacking with a heavy load is as much a mental game as a physical one, and there are several things you can do to get ready no matter your starting fitness level.
One of the best and most obvious ways is to get out there and do it! If you have a big trail in mind, then start with some shorter day or overnight hikes with a reasonably heavy pack to start getting your muscles used to that type of exercise. Don’t avoid uphill – this is one of the best types of terrain for strength and conditioning in your legs and core.
Pay attention to your knees. Going downhill with a heavy backpack can really put your knee joints through their paces, and you don’t want to end up injured out on the trail. Look for some light mobility exercises in your knees, hips and ankles, and gradually include and increase weight to these exercises too.
Related article: How To Increase Your Stamina For Hiking (10 Tips and Tricks)
If you enjoy going to the gym, there are several exercises you can do to help train you for a heavy backpack too. Instead of pushing yourself with your maximum weight on static exercises such as squats, dead lifts and bench press; opt instead for a lower weight on dynamic movements such as lunges, squat jumps and kettle bell swings.
Backpacking is a great combination of cardio, strength and endurance – so anything you can do which improves those areas will stand you in good stead when you hit the trail.
Up Next In Backpacking Gear and Advice:
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Suzie Hall has a passion for all things wild and is a scuba diver and Orcalab researcher based in Hanson Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She spends most of her time exploring this great wide earth and her travels have taken her to some remarkable locations including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan and the wild British Columbia coast. Fueled by a drive to protect our wild spaces and their inhabitants, Suzie works in conservation projects around the globe and lives to write about the amazing people, places and wildlife she encounters.
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